Principal's Blog

Differentiation – approach to teaching and learning

“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” This quote by Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, expresses the view that a quality education should reflect a deep understanding of the learner and should respond to their particular needs.

Just over a decade ago the Australian education landscape was changed with the launch of The Australian Curriculum. This was a federal government attempt to unify content and skill development across Australia’s diverse education systems and to essentially quantify what should be taught in schools and when it should be taught.

At the time of implementation there was considerable debate about the division between individual and collective approaches, and the merits and detriments of implementation of a uniform curriculum. On one hand, this was seen as a way of providing greater consistency, ensuring that key content was taught and avoiding gaps or repetition for students who moved school environments. On the other, this was seen as an imposition on teacher flexibility and creativity and even as an attempt to exercise social engineering by means of the school curriculum.

At the time of the implementation the government described the model as one based on student rights. Rather than emphasising what a student must be taught at a particular time, the emphasis was on the knowledge and skills that a student had the right to acquire.

While this emphasis was arguably more about trivial politics than a substantive philosophical outlook on education, it has stuck with me over the years. As such, in any discussion about curriculum – what we teach, and pedagogy – how we teach it, I try to remember that this relates to the fundamental rights of our students to learn.

Across the educational community this distinction has led to a changed understanding of the nature of the teacher-student relationship. In previous generations, schools were predominantly structured around a set approach where the same expectations, standards and experiences were applied to all students regardless of individual capability, prowess or prior knowledge. This approach created an environment where students were expected to learn at the same pace as the rest of the class. This had significant implications for students who had difficulty grasping concepts or acquiring skills and also for those who found it very easy to negotiate the material.

Nowadays, there is an increasing emphasis on differentiation in our approach to teaching and learning. This is a powerful ideal that shifts the focus from the student being required to keep up or hold back with the class’ progress, to the teacher being required to design learning experiences that take each student to their next stage of development.

This is not an entirely new approach – in the early 1930s Societ psychologist, Lev Vygotzky discussed the Zone of Proximal Development. Vygotsky argued that optimal teaching should involve concepts, skills and knowledge that are just beyond the developmental abilities of an individual student. A visual metaphor might be having to stand on tippy-toes and stretch to grasp the new learning. In management speak we similarly refer to ‘stretch goals’.

In its implementation, differentiation requires teachers to acquire a deep understanding of the learning needs of each student and take a flexible classroom approach which meets the child where they are and then extends them to their next learning moment.

This year we have adopted differentiation as a priority across the School and hope that as our teachers refine their abilities to individualise learning opportunities we will be able to provide even more enriching and engaging experiences.

We know and understand that, when done well, differentiation grants each student the right to learn in a way that is meaningful and relevant for their education.